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Teacher Pay Is Poorly Understood

By Walt Gardner — December 05, 2014 2 min read
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Whether public-school teachers are underpaid or overpaid depends largely on how the issue is viewed. What is indisputable, however, is that teachers’ salaries vary wildly across the country (“Middle-Class Pay Elusive for Teachers, Report Says,” The New York Times, Dec. 3). According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, teachers in certain communities earn far less than those in others, and they reach the top of the pay schedule far later.

If there is one valid generalization, it’s that suburban teachers are better paid than their urban colleagues. For example, thousands of public-school teachers in the New York suburbs as far back as 2005 were earning more than $100,000 annually (“The Rise of the Six-Figure Teacher,” The New York Times, May 15, 2005). At that time, teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District were paid well under $100,000. What was distressing then was that the cost of housing alone in Los Angeles was far greater than that in the suburbs of New York. Today, the difference in housing is even more dramatic, with one-bedroom, one-bath apartments in West Los Angeles renting for an average of $1,800 a month. Yet salaries in the LAUSD have not kept pace with the increase in the cost of living in the city.

Nevertheless, there are those who maintain that public-school teachers are overpaid (“Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid,” The Wall Street Journal,” Nov. 8, 2011). Andrew G. Biggs and Jason Richwine wrote that “properly counted, a typical public school teacher with a salary of $51,000 would receive another $51,480 in present or future fringe benefits. A worker in private business with the same salary would receive around $22,185 in fringe benefits.” The two researchers made the same point in a series of op-eds that were published in various newspapers, including this one (“Are Teachers Overpaid? A Response to Critics,” Education Week, Jan. 11, 2012).

I don’t dispute the non-taxable benefits that school districts provide their teachers. These are golden. But teachers do not live on benefits alone. They need income to pay for housing, food, clothing and the like. The argument that Biggs and Richwine make is reminiscent of what John Maynard Keynes said in reply to the statement that in the long run the stock market always goes up: “In the long run, we are all dead.” Sure, some teachers have generous benefits, but they have to live long enough to collect them.

As for the so-called gold-plated pensions that public-school teachers receive and that are blamed in large part for each state’s financial woes, let’s remember that teachers pay into their retirement. The problem is that cities and states have not kept their end of the bargain by paying in what they were supposed to. Whose fault is that? If they had, there would not be an underfunded pension obligation to teachers (and other public employees).

Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, says he has a solution. He wants to change the present defined-benefit plan, which is rear-loaded, to give teachers bigger increases in the early years of their careers and pay for the increases by reducing their pensions (“Why Teacher Pensions Don’t Work,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2011). I don’t think his proposal will find much support among teachers.

If teachers are indeed overpaid and the job is such a plum (long summer vacations, short teaching days), then why is there not a rush by the best college graduates into the profession? I’m still waiting for a credible answer from reformers, but I won’t hold my breath.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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